Girls with any taste like thin guys, with clothes that're too tight.
Me and Ryan sat on the tanks behind Eric’s Corner Store and Butcher and Arcade and Pool Hall, smoking, looking out over the ball field and the orchards, and talking about the new girl at the counter.
She’ll never come out with us if we don’t got wheels, Ryan said. Especially since she’s western. My uncle trucked out there and said everyone’s got a vehicle.
We don’t have our licences, though.
I've got my beginner’s. Come on. And you know Dad’s let me drive up to my Uncle Jake’s since I turned fifteen. Dad and Mum are going to the races tomorrow. With the truck and trailer. So around recess we’ll come back and get the Datsun. Then we’ll come up here to Eric’s and pick up El.
I wonder what her real name is, I said.
What do you mean?
El’s short for something. Like Elizabeth. El kind of sounds like Elizabeth.
That’s Liz or Beth. My aunt Elizabeth goes by Beth.
Maybe the letter L, then. If it’s short for something. Like J for Jason or B for Brad.
Then we’ll never guess. Could be Laura, Luba, anything, Ryan said. Doesn’t matter, though. I’ll just get her name tomorrow. We’ll be cruising around the Valley and maybe we’ll drive up to the lighthouse and we’ll roll the windows down and we’ll be smoking and the wind’ll fly in and make our hair all crazy and I’ll lean over and say, “So, what’s your name again? No, no, your real name.” Something like that.
I got up early enough to hear Dad leave for work. When my sister, June, told me about girls, she said, Put on good underwear. Even if you’re fourteen and not taking your pants off yet, she might see them when you bend over. If the elastic’s gone, she’ll know they’re old. And wear things that fit nice. Girls with any taste like thin guys. With clothes that’re too tight.
I rooted through my closet to see what she’d picked out for me at Frenchy’s, the used-clothes store where she spent half her time before she left. I’d never actually worn any of the shirts and pants—the “pieces,” she called them. I pulled out a yellow tie. It was safe. You didn’t get too big for ties. Even skinny leather ones. Think of musicians, June said. Girls love guys in bands.
I tried on my black jeans and collared shirt. I went into Dad’s room and closed the door so Riley couldn’t get in. I stood in front of Dad’s mirror. I looked just like the guy June went away with. I definitely wasn’t going to wear my old runners so I dug out the pair of shoes I’d worn to the funeral. I shone them up with Dad’s black polish.
I met Ryan at the smoking section before school. He had on his best jeans and a button-up shirt. Neither of them fit. He looked me over. Nice clothes, he said. Little tight, though, don’t you think?
Better tight than too loose. What—that your dad’s shirt?
Don’t tell me my clothes’re loose! We’ve got to be a team, he said.
After recess, we traded three smokes for a lift to the reserve. We put our money together and bought a new pack. Then we took the old tracks and cut through the woods. We crossed the highway and walked the rest of the way to Ryan’s from there.
The Datsun was three different colours and covered in dead-leaf stains. The windshield looked like countries on a map.
Go up and grab some music, Ryan said. Bring the tape with the white-out. And the one with the masking tape across the top.
The smell that sometimes came off Ryan was just as strong in the house as it was in the barns because of the jackets and boots in the hall. When I got back outside, he was patting down the seats with duct tape. Here, he said, passing me the roll and standing like he was about to be frisked. Get me, will you. I don’t want horse all over me.
When he was clean, Ryan opened the new pack of smokes and put in his second-favourite tape. Some kind of rap he’d taped off the radio came pounding out the back.
Here we go!
I couldn’t tell what was a drumbeat and what was my heart as we ducked around the potholes, pulled onto the road and drove toward Eric’s Corner Store and Butcher and Arcade and Pool Hall . . . and Place Where El Works.
We parked away from the door but we could still see her at the counter. She was head-to-toe in black like the host of a music video show. The clothes made her skin look even paler than it did when I first saw her. And they made her seem more blond, too, the way kids’ hair bleaches after being in pools all summer. She wore earrings that went from the top of her ears to the floppy part at the bottom, as if they were one big wire sewn through her lobes like the binding on a scribbler.
Why the hell should I go in? Ryan took out another smoke and lit it.
Save some of those. We might need them for later.
Not if you don’t go in and get her, we won’t. We can’t keep sitting out here. She’ll think we’re a couple of creeps. Just go in.
I felt like throwing up.
June used to tell me how girls like guys who take risks, especially shy guys who take risks, guys who find risks harder than anything but take them for a girl anyway, even if they look awkward and red-faced. So right in the middle of one of Ryan’s whines about how he was the one who got the car, I opened the door and jumped out and ran up the steps to Eric’s.
Hi, she said. She looked me up and down. She didn’t smirk at my clothes like Ryan or the kids at school.
Hi, I said. It took a minute for her eyes to come back up and meet mine.
Dev, Eric shouted from the back as he heaved a slab of meat onto some wax paper. You got a big meeting in the boardroom or what?
Me and Ryan got a couple frees, I said. Eric, you busy right now?
I was wondering if El wanted to come out.
Eric laughed. Why don’t you ask her yourself?
Something inside me wouldn’t let me turn to her. My cheeks and ears were hot. My throat closed up.
It all right if I go? she yelled to Eric.
Did he ask you yet?
No. But I get what he’s saying. I think I’m going to go out.
Give me half an hour, Eric said. Once I finish with this cut you can go out till the break of dawn if you want.
I ran out and jumped off the steps, my tie whacking me in the face.
She’s coming out in half an hour. Go! We can’t just sit here!
As we drove around, Ryan smoked most of his half of the pack.
What’re we going to do with her? Just drive? Go into town?
Shouldn’t go into town, Ryan said. Too many cops. Maybe we should go to my place. She’ll love the horses.
I thought the horses were at the race.
Not all. The Russians are still there.
If we end up driving around, we’re not going to keep listening to rap, are we? She might like country better.
I'll just ask her what she likes when she gets in, Ryan said. I’ll put down the window and lean over and say, “So, how you liking the tunes, darling?” Something like that.
Where’s she going to sit, though? The back?
Ryan snorted. Think I’d make her sit in back? She’ll sit where you’re sitting. You’ll have to climb through the seats when she gets in.
El was sitting on Eric’s front steps waiting for us. Ryan drove up beside her.
Don’t honk, I said.
I’m not going to honk, he whispered. God. Just get in back.
I’d thought about whether I should climb through the seats once we arrived or whether I should show up already in the back like someone’s grandmother. But instead I got out as soon as we parked, like I suddenly had the urge to be a real gentleman.
Hi, El, I said. Want shotgun? I stood by the door like I was her chauffeur.
She looked me up and down, the same way she did before. Nice jeans, she said. I don’t mind sitting in back.
How about a cigarette, El said once we were out of sight of Eric’s. I’m dying.
Ryan passed her one from his side of the pack. Where do you want to go? he asked.
I don’t know. What’s there to do?
We could drive up to the shore.
Isn’t it too cold to swim this time of year?
I looked at Ryan out of the corner of my eye. People didn’t swim in the bay. They just walked on the beach and lit fires there.
We could have a bonfire, Ryan said. Round up some driftwood.
Why? It’s not that cold, is it?
Ryan and I looked at each other without being obvious about it. What about horses? You like horses, right?
Horses? No. I’m sick of them. That’s one of the reasons I came out east.
Oh, Ryan said. Not even Russians?
Russian men are bad enough.
I couldn’t tell whether she was joking or not.
Not even ponies?
El didn’t answer. In my mirror I could see her sit back and take deep drags on her cigarette, the way a perfect woman in a movie would smoke in a taxi.
We could go to my place, I said.
What’s there to do there?
There’s pool. We’ve got a table in the basement. You play?
A little. But you’ve got to be eighteen to get in the bars back home. And my eighteenth was just last week.
Last week? A pain shot through my chest—I thought she was seventeen at the most. Happy birthday, I said.
Ryan laughed. You going to sing to her now or what?
No, it’s sweet he said that, El said.
When we pulled up in front of our place, I saw how rotten-looking it really was. It was almost October but the Christmas tree was still leaning against the house like a dried-out, hollow bug. And pieces of engines had sat on the lawn for so long that green tusks sprang up where the mower couldn’t reach. Thin weeds as tall as people grew out of the leaves in the rain gutter along the roof, which Dad said he couldn’t empty because Riley’d just climb the ladder and get on the house again, showing off for the neighbours’ dogs. Then he’d whine to get down and squirm in your arms and you might both fall. The neighbours’ houses were just as bad.
Riley started scratching when he heard the key. When I opened the door a hair, enough to squeeze through without letting him out, a nasty smell escaped. Riley! What’d you do?
I told El and Ryan to wait outside and have another cigarette. I ran in and picked up the empty soup cans and apple cores.
Riley ripped the damn garbage open again, I said. Sorry. It’s pretty bad. But if you plug your nose we can go right to the basement.
No big deal, El said. Dad’s got five dogs. They do that kind of thing all the time.
Riley wouldn’t leave El alone. He jumped up and pawed her stomach every step she took. But she didn’t care. What! What! She got down on her knees and whispered to him, What? You need attention? You been inside on such a nice day? It was the first time he’d gotten any real love since June went. I fed him and took him back to the irrigation ponds and threw sticks and carrots in the water, but fetch wasn’t the same as having a girl rub your ears and use that voice with you.
Sorry, I said to El. Riley, stop.
No, it’s okay, she said. I don’t mind. What? What do you want?
Ryan was breaking and talking about what he didn’t like about horses when footsteps clomped across the floor upstairs. Riley’s nails skidded everywhere. Even with Riley’s noise, I could tell it was more than just Dad.
Dad opened the door to the basement. Who’s there? Dev?
Hi, Dad. What’re you doing home early?
More like what’re you doing home in the middle of the day.
We got frees.
Who’s car’s that in the driveway?
Ryan and I looked at each other.
Dad snorted when we didn’t answer. Well, whoever’s it is, can they come up and park it on the road? I got a friend and I’m not making her leave her car there. And who’s “we,” anyway? You got half your class down there?
A woman laughed upstairs.
Me and Ryan and El, I said.
Hi, El said. I’m Eric’s niece. Corner-store Eric.
You should run up and move the Datsun, I said to Ryan.
Won’t he care?
He doesn’t know you just got your beginner’s. And you’ll have to move it anyway if you want to get it back on time.
You’ve only got your beginner’s? El stared at Ryan, then at me. How old are you guys, anyway?
Sixteen. But Dev’s only fifteen.
Fifteen and a half. Almost.
I thought you were at least seventeen.
Thanks, El, Ryan said.
Why don’t you just drop the car off at your place and walk back? I said. Then you won’t have to worry about getting it back later. And no one’ll see it on the road.
El broke but the balls didn’t move much. She put the cue down and looked at me. That same strange look as before. It was like there was a joke between us and she was about to laugh.
Why do you stare like that?
No reason, she said. Just you remind me of my first boyfriend. In grade nine.
My face burned, it was blushing so bad. I don’t know anyone like you, I said. What do me and him have in common, then?
Just your looks. Maybe the way you dress a bit. And I like how you came in the store and asked me. Come here. Before he comes back.
El grabbed my tie and pulled me to her. I looked out through my eyelashes so that she wouldn’t be able to tell I was watching. She was staring back.
She put her face to mine like we were birds. She pulled away. She looked down at my lips. She came back in. She licked at me along my jaw. She made sounds and I tried to make them too. Even with the smoke taste, I could tell what her breath was really like.
She ran her fingers up my neck and into my hair. The way her fingertips moved made me want to sob. I set my face on her neck, her collarbone. I moved my tears around her skin with my lips. I focussed on El’s breathing and the hundreds of ways someone can take a breath.
You’re only my second kiss, I said.
You’re such a geek. I love it. You’re what all girls want, deep down.
That’s what I’ve been telling myself to justify kissing a fifteen-year-old.
Fifteen and a half, I said.
Almost, she said, and she pressed her tongue against her teeth and moved in to me again.
Ryan knocked on the basement window. The door’s locked, he said through the glass. Come up and let me in, Dev.
El pulled me to her and our noses touched. I moved us both to the side so Ryan could see us.
Should we let him in? I whispered.
I didn’t hear it if you didn’t.
A half hour later, he was still waiting on the grass outside the window. In the last bits of dark, he got up and walked away.
El sat on the pool table with her legs around my waist and the back part of her shirt rolled up. Sweat trickled along her backbone. Who’s that? She pointed to the picture on top of the tv.
The old family.
With Mum and my sister.
El gave me a push so that she had enough room to get up off the table. She brought the picture under the lights. Your mom is really gorgeous. Like a doll. She and your sister look so different. She looks so strong.
Strong? June, you mean?
Look at her shoulders. They’re as wide as your dad’s. Did she and your mom leave or something?
June took off a while ago. With her boyfriend. This guy from Kentville. He treated her okay, I guess. He always bought her roses. Only they never opened. Just drooped over and died.
I hate that, El said. They look like sad people like that. It’s worse than if someone hadn’t even got them for you at all.
I flicked the light on in the kitchen and looked out the window. There was a car beside Dad’s that I didn’t recognize.
Riley got up from in front of Dad’s door and came flying down the hall. He slid across the kitchen floor and jumped on El’s thighs.
Riley, what did I tell you? Get down.
El checked the clock on the stove. I should get back to Eric’s. How far’s it to walk?
You shouldn’t walk in the dark. I’ll get Dad to drive you.
I tapped on his door. Shuffling and whispering came through from the other side.
What is it, Dev?
I could see through the crack that he was lying in bed with no shirt on, watching the black- and-white. The person beside him was hiding under the sheets. Didn’t she care that there was a whole closet full of Mum’s clothes right in front of her that Dad hadn’t even shut?
I put my mouth up to the crack. Can you drive El home?
El was standing outside in the dark with Riley. I could see her breath come out when she talked to him.
I’m not supposed to let him out, I said. He tears around with the neighbours’ dogs. He doesn’t understand cars too good either.
I got ahold of Riley’s collar and yanked him to the house. Come on, Riley, I said.
I got him inside and closed the door.
El lit up a cigarette. She’d had her own pack the whole time. So you never told me why your sister left.
I didn’t know how much I should say—I hadn’t even gotten her name.
You don’t have to, she said.
No, it’s okay. June started acting up after the funeral. Then her and Dad didn’t get along any more. Dad tried hard. He even bought her the dog. June tried some. But really they drove each other crazy. She blamed him for a lot. I think she wanted to get back at him by leaving Riley here.
Where’s she now?
I heard out West. Someone calls sometimes and hangs up. Probably it’s her. I pressed star-69 and it said 4-0-3-something.
Did you call it back?
Once. But this guy answered and said I had the wrong number when I asked for her. It wasn’t her boyfriend.
Let’s call it back! I’ll talk to him!
I don’t know where the number went.
You don’t know where it went? El stared at me. But you might never see her again.
She finished her smoke and there was still no light from Dad’s room. The tv kept flashing in the window. El walked to the end of the driveway.
Wait. Hold on.
I ran inside and knocked on Dad’s door again.
Can’t you drive El home?
I said we’re coming. Keep that closed.
There was some thumping and the sound of jeans sliding on and then a zipper. Then the door opened.
This woman I recognized from the cash at Frenchy’s came out. She wore perfume and kept tucking her hair behind her ears, though it didn’t stay there long because of how curly it was.
Hi, Devin, she said, using the voice you’d use with a ten-year-old. I’m Penny. I’m friends with your dad.
Nice tie, she said. You said your friend needs a drive?
I followed her to the front door. If you could, I said. It’s not too far.
Try not to let that dog out, Dev, Dad yelled from his room. But Riley was already in the yard again with El.
I pushed the door open. How’d he get out?
I don’t know, she said.
He’s not allowed out.
I know. You already said.
I tried to grab Riley but he ran across the yard. He barked and panted like it was a game. He ran around and around the mower. Come on, I said. Don’t do this now. Come here.
Penny started up her car and waited there with the brake lights on until I had the dog in my hands.
Bye, Riley, El said. Maybe I’ll see you again. Then she got in and shut the door.
As the car backed out, Dad opened his bedroom window and stared into the headlights. His face looked old. Maybe because he hadn’t smiled like that for a while and he didn’t have his glasses on.
Riley tried to get away and run to the car.
No, don’t bark, I whispered. I got down on my knees and hugged his ribs. Shh, I said. He hadn’t been like this since June left. Don’t worry. She’ll be back.